The Champions Classic, which celebrates its seventh season Tuesday at United Center in Chicago, serves college basketball well by putting the sport on people’s minds in mid-November with an annual doubleheader blockbuster on a Tuesday night, when MAC games are the only football competition. (Then again, MAC teams compete quite well, don't they?)
The Champions Classic serves all four basketball programs well by giving them exposure and in some cases filling coaches with no shortage of material to show players they aren’t quite ready for prime time.
Since it’s a huge plus for all four schools there is no reason to believe it won’t last forever, growing in stature through the decades, centuries and millennia.
Kansas ranks last in the Champions Classic standings with a 2-4 record, but the games haven’t necessarily been accurate predictors of NCAA tournament performance for the four schools. KU is the only school that has not either lost in the first round (Duke twice, Michigan State once) or failed to make the NCAA tournament field (Kentucky in 2013). All four schools have made it to the Final Four since the start of the doubleheader.
KU is 2-0 vs. Duke and 0-2 vs. Kentucky and Michigan State. The round-robin stays in turn every year, so Kansas always plays, in order, Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke.
In Tuesday's doubleheader, No. 1 Duke faces No. 2 Michigan State in the 6 p.m. tipoff and No. 4 Kansas faces No. 5 Kentucky in the night cap, optimistically scheduled for 8:30 but likely to tip at closer to 8:50.
A look at Champions Classic standings:
||Hall of Fame coach
||W||L||PF||PA||NCAA tournament record since CC started; best & worst finishes
||4||2||432||369||19-4, Best: NC in 2012; Worst: NIT in 2013
||3||3||451||453||12-5, Best: NC in 2015; Worst: 1st-round L in 2012, 2014
||12-6, Best: FF in 2015; Worst: 1st-round L in 2016
||2||4||413||451||15-6, Best: NC runner-up in 2012; Worst: 2nd-round L in 2014, 2015
Checking the Associated Press preseason college basketball poll to see how many regular-season games Kansas is scheduled to play against ranked schools always makes for a fun exercise.
Let’s take a look at how the numbers compare, starting with Devonte’ Graham’s freshman season through this, his senior season, to see how KU’s schedule measures up.
In Graham’s freshman year, KU's schedule included games against preseason No. 1 Kentucky, No. 7 Florida, No. 18 Michigan State and No. 25 Utah, plus two Big 12 games vs. No. 10 Texas, No. 14 Iowa State and No. 19 Oklahoma. That’s 10 regular-season games vs. schools that appeared in the top 25.
In Graham’s sophomore season, KU had game games against preseason No. 13 Michigan State and No. 18 Vanderbilt, plus two conference games vs. No. 7 Iowa State, No. 8 Oklahoma and No. 22 Baylor. That’s eight regular-season games against preseason top 25 schools.
Last season, KU played preseason No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 11 Indiana, plus two Big 12 games against No. 20 West Virginia, No. 21 Texas and No. 24 Iowa State for a total of nine games preseason top 25 schools.
This season, No. 4 Kansas faces preseason No. 5 Kentucky and has a pair conference games vs. No. 11 West Virginia and No. 24 Baylor for a total of five games against schools ranked in the preseason poll released earlier this week.
Not by design, the schedule is less challenging this season, in part because just three Big 12 teams are ranked as opposed to the usual four. Syracuse, which KU plays in Miami, often appears in the preseason top 25, but doesn’t this season.
Look at the bright side of a less brutal schedule. Udoka Azubuike, still on the raw side, will have a chance to restore confidence if he doesn’t have a terrific showing against Kentucky (Nov. 14, United Center in Chicago) and Billy Preston will grow increasingly comfortable playing in the paint while developing confidence in that area of his game. Both players have huge upsides and rank as the two biggest X factors on the team.
The rigors of Big 12 play, with home-court advantages greater than in most conferences because of the on-campus arenas as opposed to NBA buildings, will be plenty stiff enough to prepare Kansas for the NCAA tournament.
This season reminds Bill Self of his first at Kansas in one respect: High expectations, a constant companion for coaches of national-powerhouse programs that reload, whereas most programs must rebuild in years they lose a lot of talent, haven’t gone anywhere from the day Self left Illinois for Kansas.
“I remember going and speaking around the state and numerous fans around the state would tell me, ‘This is going to be our year. This is going to be our year.’ I’m like going, ‘What about these last years?’ We had (Nick) Collison, (Kirk) Hinrich and (Drew) Gooden and now we automatically are supposed to be better after going to back-to-back Final Fours,” Self said Tuesday at Media Day. “That’s where I made the joke about Kansas Math.”
Frank Mason, Josh Jackson and starting center Landen Lucas are gone, but they didn’t take high expectations for KU with them.
“It’s kind of that way with this team,” Self said. “A lot of people expect this team to be really, really good, which we have a chance, we’re not close now, but you lose the national player of the year and you lose a guy who’s arguably as good as anybody in the draft last year. That’s a lot to replace, but somehow people are so optimistic always that we should always be better.”
Kansas was picked third in the coaches’ preseason poll, which had the four annual Champions Classic schools in the top four spots (Duke at No. 1, Michigan State No. 2, Kentucky No. 4).
Self's fine with the expectations. He didn't make it to the Hall of Fame by running from high standards.
The Kansas women’s basketball program, rocked by the tough break of losing leading scorer Jessica Washington for the season with a torn ACL, also has received bad news on the recruiting front.
Two of the three recruits from national powerhouse Duncanville High who had made verbal commitments to Kansas have decommitted, according to Dan Olson of Collegiate Girls Basketball Report.
Shooting guard Zay Green, ranked No. 13 in the nation by Olson, is on a recruiting trip to Tennessee this weekend, Olson reported Friday. He said Green still is considering Kansas.
Forward Starr Jacobs is ranked No. 122 by Olson, who said she has committed to Houston. Point guard Aniya Thomas, a prolific 3-point shooter, remains committed to Kansas.
“She’s developed nicely,” Olson told the Journal-World of Thomas, on Oct. 1, the day the three players committed to KU. “She has deep, deep range and she’s a killer on defense. She’s a real tempo-destroyer for the other team."
On that same day, Olson said he expected that by season's end Green would break into his top five in the rankings.
"She is still open to going to Kansas," Olson said today of Green. "She's visiting Knoxville today and Saturday."
NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from commenting on unsigned recruits.
In sports, opinions that start with a snowflake can turn into an avalanche because so many hear a viewpoint, run with it as their own and don't ever stop to think whether it's fair.
In the case of Bill Self, who has led Kansas basketball to seven No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds in the past 11 seasons (seeded No. 2 three times in that span, No. 3 the other) and has had at least a share of the Big 12 title for 13 consecutive years and counting, the rap on him is that he's not the same coach in the tournament. Much of that stems from a 2-7 career record in Elite Eight games, including a 2-5 mark at Kansas, which he has taken to the Elite Eight in 50 percent of his seasons.
In an attempt to capture tournament success with a formula, I decided to award one point for every victory, two points for each Final Four appearance and 10 points for a national title to see where Self stacks up among active Div. I basketball coaches.
Based on my research, which does not include the work done by Jim Calhoun at UConn, Billy Donovan at Florida and Rick Pitino at Louisville because they are not active college coaches, Self placed fourth, which pokes holes in the theory that his teams routinely disappoint during March Madness. The Elite Eight remains his Achilles heel and he doesn't hide from that, talks about needing to burst through the door instead of just knocking on it, and each year holds himself up to that standard, but it's not accurate to term a coach who places fourth among active coaches in tourney success a disappoint.
A look at active college basketball coaches' NCAA tournament success since 2003-04, Self's first at Kansas, based on the aforementioned formula:
|1 - Roy Williams
|2 - John Calipari
|3 - Mike Krzyzewski
|4 - Bill Self
|5 - Tom Izzo
|6 - Jay Wright
|7t - Jim Boeheim
|7t - Mark Few
|9 - Ben Howland
|10t - John Bielein
|10t - Sean Miller
|10t - Kevin Ollie
|13 - Bob Huggins
|14t - Dana Altman
|14t - Gregg Marshall
|16t - Rick Barnes
|16t - Jamie Dixon
|16t - Frank Martin
|16t - Bruce Weber
Larry Keating, special assistant to the athletics director, handles scheduling for Kansas men’s and women’s basketball and football.
Having been in college athletics for so long, Keating, 73, has the advantage of knowing coaches and administrators in just about every league in the country. He uses those connections to project which schools will win a lot of games in lesser-known conferences, a trick that helps Kansas improve its strength of schedule.
Keating first became involved in scheduling college basketball games when, fresh out of the Army, he was hired as an assistant basketball coach at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.
Keating predicts that this year’s nonconference schedule will have a number of teams that will be better this season than last, a good thing considering just three schools made the NCAA tournament field a year ago: No. 1 seed Kentucky and No. 16 seeds South Dakota State and Texas Southern.
Keating said he schedules most of the games, “a year or two ahead of time.”
Washington is one school on the nonconference slate that does not figure to be on the rise. Former long-time Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins has replaced fired Lorenzo Romar as head coach of the Huskies.
How Washington ended up on KU’s schedule has an interesting twist to it.
Keating said Washington contacted KU attempting to play a home-and-home. Kansas wasn’t interested in playing in Seattle, but Keating offered a Dec. 6 game in Sprint Center without a return game. Then coached by Romar, Washington accepted. Why?
It was scheduled as a favor to the Huskies’ top recruit, Michael Porter Jr., a native of Columbia, Missouri, whose father had been hired on Romar’s staff.
Once Romar was fired, Porter Sr. was without a job, although not for long. First-year Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin hired Porter Sr. and Missouri ended up with not only Michael Jr., but his brother Jontay, who reclassified to join his year-older brother as a part of a loaded recruiting class for the Tigers.
So Kansas was going to face Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s top recruit, but now won’t, unless that is, the schools meet in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas projects as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and Missouri projects as anywhere from a No. 7 to No. 10 seed, so it could happen.
Landen Lucas was forced to the bench by foul trouble in the second half of a second-round NCAA Tournament game against Michigan State last March. Dwight Coleby made sure Lucas wasn't missed, contributing three points, four rebounds, a steal and a burst of feel-good energy.
Who fills that role for Kansas this coming season in the event that sophomore Udoka Azubuike has to buy time on the bench nursing foul trouble in a second-round tourney game?
Better question: Might Coleby have been talked into staying if William & Mary transfer Jack Whitman had never come to Kansas as a graduate transfer? We'll never know the answer to that but do know that Coleby will play for Western Kentucky and Whitman won't play for Kansas, having quit the team without making it through the summer, thus forgoing an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy. Even Evan Maxwell, a Liberty transfer who was in the Kansas program from May to December of last year, lasted longer than that. Maxwell will suit up for Illinois Wesleyan this coming season.
Highly skilled freshman Billy Preston, who considers himself a point forward at heart, has the second-biggest body on the KU roster at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, smaller only than Azubuike, who checks in at 7-foot, 280. After that, Mitch Lightfoot (6-8, 210 and counting) and Svi Mykhailiuk (6-8, 205) stand the tallest and weigh the most. Lightfoot brings enough toughness to battle bigger bodies and wants to be 225 by the start of the season. Svi is a perimeter player who attempted 176 3-pointers and 104 2-pointers last season. He averaged three rebounds in 27.3 minutes and isn't a natural fit to defend any of the five positions.
KU still has a scholarship available. The best-case scenario has Marvin Bagley III, a 6-10, 220-pound potential overall No. 1 NBA draft pick, filling it, but that's considered a long shot at this point for a number of reasons. First, Bagley would have to successfully reclassify from the Class of 2018. Second, he would have to choose Kansas. Most who follow recruiting closely seem to think Duke is at the top of his list. Bagley has visited Duke and reportedly has visits scheduled with Arizona and USC. Kentucky, UCLA and Kansas also are on his list.
Barring landing Bagley, the next-best outcome lies in recruiting a reserve post player from junior college or a graduate transfer. At this point, most if not all of those prospects have committed elsewhere.
Azubuike's injury last season caused Josh Jackson to play out of position. A natural small forward, he thrived at power forward, stayed in the moment and trained his focus on winning. Most one-and-done talents have an eye on auditioning. He didn't. If Preston is needed to play on the block more than anticipated, can he keep his eye glued on winning as well as Jackson did?
Agile, quick, a strong ballhandler and blessed with a soft shooting touch and ideal basketball physique, Preston will have ample opportunity to show his perimeter skills when Azubuike is on the floor with him. When Azubuike sits and Preston is most needed inside, NBA scouts will take note of what's inside him by studying whether at those moments he does what's best for the team or what he perceives as what's best for his draft stock. It's not easy convincing teenagers that acting in the team's best interests does more to impress the scouts.
The answer to whether Preston can take the unselfish path chosen by Jackson will go a long way toward determining just how much Kansas will miss Coleby, who averaged 1.5 points and 1.8 rebounds and left for a place where his role will expand considerably.
New Oklahoma head football coach Lincoln Riley received advice from, among others, David Beaty on how to make the transition from assistant coach to top dog.
“The phrase I shared with him was these next few days will be like drinking from a fire hose,” Beaty said. “If you’re not careful, you’ll drown. So you do have to go be a normal person. I know you’ve got a lot to do right now, but believe it or not, you’ll be better with less if you’ll go and grant yourself that vacation because the time just won’t be there.”
It’s not the only area where Beaty learned during his first two seasons that less can mean more. He’s also applying that philosophy to his involvement with the offense.
In his first season as head coach, Beaty was very involved in trying to get offensive coordinator Rob Likens to implement his version of the Air Raid offense. It never happened, so Beaty demoted Likens and took over OC and quarterback coaching duties and then also took on coaching the punt return team early in his second season on the job.
Now that veteran OC Doug Meacham is on board, Beaty said his days as a helicopter hovering over the offense have ended.
“One of the positives about bringing Meach here it allows me to do more of the head-coaching stuff rather than having to do both,” Beaty said. “Now, it’s being done throughout the country and it’s being done at a high level. Ideally, though, if you have a guy who knows what you want to do and he knows it as well as he knows it, then that’s ideal. And he just happens to be one of the best in the world at what he does. So it’s a big-time bonus for us.”
Beaty has done a terrific job at promoting the program, developing relationships with key boosters and in general spreading good will, all important facets of a head coach’s job as face of a major rebuilding project.
“My schedule will change a little bit in that I’m not going to hover over him,” Beaty said. “I don’t have to. I mean, Doug Meacham has done it. I’m not going to sit here and proclaim that I know more and am better than Doug. Offensively, his record and the things that he’s done speak for themselves. Why wouldn’t I trust that man?”
Beaty’s not the only Big 12 head coach surrendering play-calling duties this season. Seventh-year West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen won’t be calling plays for the first time. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, back on Holgorsen’s staff for the first time since 2012 when he was quarterbacks coach, takes over that responsibility.
In case you’re wondering whatever became of the Gonzalez twins, Dakota and Dylan, after the transferred from Kansas to UNLV to continue their women’s basketball careers, they have moved on again, this time taking a different path to fame.
The twins bypassed their fifth, and final, year of college eligibility, graduated and embarked on a music career.
The much photographed and photogenic twins who have nearly two million followers on their joint Instagram account, didn’t stand out much from most Big 12 freshmen trying to find their way in a competitive conference during their time at Kansas.
Their careers took off once they hit Vegas. Dakota led UNLV in scoring in both of her seasons there, averaging 13.8 and 13.3 points, and Dylan averaged 5.4 and 9.9 points in her two seasons in the desert.
They have been celebrities since their high school days and drew curiosity seekers to their games, including rapper Drake.
The twins, rhythm and blues artists, have released their first EP, “Take 1,” on SoundCloud. In an interview that can be found at slamonline.com, they cited frustration with NCAA rules that restricted what they could do with their music careers as the driving force behind foregoing the 2017-18 season.
Dylan told slamonline.com that dealing with “ticky-tack regulations . . . became so stressful.”
She added: “Playing a collegiate sport is a job that you don’t get paid for like a job. If you’re trying to build a foundation for yourself in another avenue, it’s nearly impossible because you don’t have the time to do it, nor are you allowed to do it.”
Dakota said that being a student-athlete under the NCAA’s umbrella is tougher than most believe.
“To be very blunt, a lot of people don’t see the behind-the-scenes type of actions that go along with it,” she told slamonline.com. “People always ask why no one has spoken out if it is such a big problem. . . . Let’s say you have a job and are working to survive, why would you go start slandering your boss? So you can get fired or have some consequence come your way? You’re just not going to do that.”
As a freshman in 2013-14 at Kansas, Dakota averaged 4.4 points in 17.3 minutes and appeared in 30 games, making four starts. Dylan appeared in nine games, played 25 minutes and scored 10 points.
Somebody must have slipped something into former Missouri chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s tea for him to be foolish enough to get into a tongue fight with an elite college basketball coach.
Full disclosure: I absolutely love that Loftin picked a fight with Kansas basketball coach Bill Self because the Border Cold War had faded into obscurity and lacked fresh tension. It needed a signature moment to put people on edge and Loftin provided. I just can’t imagine why Loftin thought he could step into the ring with a man who makes such a handsome living because he knows exactly what to say and when to say it.
As do all the top-shelf college basketball coaches, Self knows what to say in a recruit’s living room, flashing just the right amount of Southern charm, mixed with the proper dose of gravity to discuss the athlete’s financial future as an impending NBA star, and a quick wit that leaves them laughing.
He knows just what to say to a new arrival who makes the mistake of shifting into cruise control in an early season practice and it’s quite a different one than the message he delivers in a pregame talk before the team takes the floor for a Final Four game after he leaves his players with no doubt that he doesn’t have a shred of doubt that they will win the game.
Great college basketball coaches are great communicators. They love to get into a war of words because they so seldom do anything but crush their opponents.
Predictably, Self knocked the elbow patches right off Loftin’s tweed jacket and needed only one of his many communication tools to drop him flat on his back in the middle of the ring. All Self needed was humor to score the one-punch knockout.
Loftin blamed Self for not resuming the Kansas-Missouri football games at Arrowhead Stadium. “The problem was a man named Bill Self, who made it very clear this wasn’t going to happen,” Loftin told AL.com.
Missouri and Texas A&M bolted to the SEC, abaondoing the Big 12, which spelled the end to their big rivalries. The Texas and Texas A&M rivalry also is on hold.
Read for the first time or re-read Loftin’s quote on those rivalries and then I have a question for you: “I think it’s more likely Texas will bend than Kansas as long as Self is involved. He has a big ego.”
When reading that did you also picture Loftin boasting to his friends at the Mensa Club meeting? You know, something along the lines of, “And then I said . . .”
If only Loftin had thought to compare paychecks before taking on the basketball coach of a perennial powerhouse. Loftin made $337,500 as chancellor of Missouri in 2016. Self makes $5 million. He should have taken on someone more on his pay grade, someone like a nuclear physicist or a world leader.
Self stood up, did a couple of quick stretches and scored a one-punch knockout with three quick sentences to the Journal-World's Matt Tait: "Tell the ex-chancellor I coach basketball, not football, and that we would never play a game in Arrowhead or even discuss it. It's too cold. We play our games indoors."
Loftin brought a Bic spitball shooter to a nuclear war and because of his lack of wisdom, the Border Cold War bubbled to the surface.
Thank you, chancellor!